I was going on 15 when the Creator of the universe first revealed himself to me, at a junior high after-school Bible study that I was attending for purely social reasons. After a half hour or so of chips, dip, Hawaiian punch, and strategic mingling in hopes of impressing various objects of newfound romantic yearning, we awkward and giggly adolescents settled in the living room of our classmate’s home, and the Presbyterian minister began a simple talk about the parable of the sower.
A few minutes into it, I suddenly became aware that a huge presence, way too big and powerful to be a figment of my imagination, was lifting me up and showing me, in a blinding flash of light and truth, that everything on earth was contained within a sort of giant aquarium that was itself couched within a larger milieu of love and benevolence. Suspended, momentarily, above the sofas and chairs and tables and paintings, I knew that everything was going to be OK and that all earthly events were relatively unimportant in themselves because of this position the planet occupied as a world within a larger world. A minute or two later, when I tuned back in to the minister’s talk, he was on the last category of the sower’s seed, that which fell on the good soil and yielded a hundredfold crop, and I thought my brain was going to explode with joy.
Over the subsequent decades, while the memory of my vision has been a source of tremendous comfort, my personal dialogue with the obtruding being has undergone constant evolution that continues to this day. At some point after the Bible-study zapping, it occurred to me that it surely would be nice if I could get petitionary prayer to work—”ask, and it shall be given unto you”—so I started trying different techniques of getting the being to grant my requests.
My earliest efforts were concentrated on compensating for my hearing impairment. The 70% loss meant I was continually subject to such incidents as being called on in class when I had no idea what was being asked, so I tried entreating God with a kind of willed belief (almost like a blind faith) to prevent those occurrences, and they largely ceased.
Gradually over the years, the scope of my prayer subjects increased, as did the sophistication of my petitioning technique. By my early forties, I was making some rather remarkable progress in areas like relationships and money management as well as my endeavors to teach school despite my disability, but this success was achieved only through repeated psychic struggles. Aware that most books on praying tended to gloss over the nitty-gritty of what actually took place in the gray matter of the person trying to pray, I began keeping a psychologically detailed spiritual journal. That journal is the raw material of my upcoming book, Petitioning God.
If you try to do the blind-faith thing yourself, you’ll probably find that you have certain obstacles to faith, certain attitudes or facts that keep you from being able to believe as wholeheartedly as you need to in order to make prayer work. But if you’ll take the time to look inward and confront those obstacles, whatever they may be, you can then either work through them yourself or—better—engage God in a back-and-forth discussion wherein you ask him to help you and listen closely for his answers. If you’re not sure which answers are his, it helps to remember that the God Jesus came to teach us about is a God of LOVE; the thoughts he gives rise to are thus always going to come from love, in the widest possible sense.
In my continued quest, the first of the more sophisticated prayer techniques I discovered was the “Act as If” maxim from the 12-step programs. When I first heard the saying, it struck me as a concrete representation of Jesus’ intriguing instruction in Mark 11:24, where he says, “All things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they shall be granted you.” So I just tried to do what the aphorism said – Act as If – and the results were again remarkable.
I used the technique most intensely one summer when I yearned for a coveted graduate teaching assistantship in my master’s program but had failed to apply on time and all the positions had been filled. As time seemed to be running out, I warded off every negative thought that tried to enter my mind by pretending to myself that I already had the assistantship in hand—even to the point of going to the campus bookstore and examining the text I would be teaching from. And at the very last minute, I got a phone call from the department head, saying someone had changed their mind and he wondered if I was still interested in being a TA. If you decide to try Acting as If yourself, I can almost guarantee you that it will enable you to get quite a few more of your prayers answered than by simple willed belief alone.
So far, everything I’ve talked about stems from the basic technique of faith. A few more years down the road, however, I chanced to hit upon another basic technique that I found God also requires before he will grant our petitions to the fullest. It was during my doctoral program, where I was again a TA, this time at a large university (Louisiana State) with larger classes and more responsibility for my own lesson plans than had been the case during my earlier assistantship; now, I found that I desperately needed help in understanding what my students were saying when they asked questions in class.
Searching for anything that might help me obtain God’s assistance, I thumbed through some of the Gospels, trying to find any further tips for getting prayers answered in addition to that very obvious requirement of faith. I remember coming to the Lord’s Prayer and almost not even reading it because I figured that it was so familiar then how could it help? But somehow I read it anyway, the version in Matthew 6, which Jesus follows by saying that if we forgive others for their transgressions, then God will forgive us, but if we don’t, he won’t. And, by implication, he won’t answer our prayers. Hmmmm. This made sense, didn’t it? And suddenly I saw that there was some forgiving I needed to do: there were a few students whose voices happened to be the type I had a particularly hard time with, and it always seemed to be those students who asked most of the questions, instead of the handful of students whose voices I could understand—and I tended to become plenty annoyed with the insistently vocal students. I knew intellectually that they didn’t deserve any blame—they were just participating in class, for God’s sake—but that didn’t lessen my irritation. So I really did need to forgive them, in the sense of getting over my annoyance. When I saw how neatly this all fit together, I was pumped with excitement. A clear plan laid out right there next to the supposedly useless prayer I was so familiar with!
When I tried to put the plan into action, however, I discovered I was powerless to overcome my annoyance by simply making up my mind to do so. First of all, I didn’t want to forgive them. (I don’t know about you, but when I’m irritated I want to keep being irritated!) And after working through that initial resistance, I still had to hunt for a workable strategy of altering my feelings. Finally, I found one: every time the irritation would arise, I would allow myself to feel it for a minute or two, gritting my teeth and rolling my eyes and doing whatever else I felt like doing to express myself, but then I would force myself to take a deep breath, relax, and turn my feelings over to God, asking him to take them away. I stayed motivated to do this by reminding myself how desperate I was to solve my problems in the classroom. If this turning away from my natural feelings was the key, you bet I was willing to continually make the effort, even though a big part of me would have much preferred to keep on wallowing in my annoyance instead.
Once I did succeed in letting God remake my mind on this issue, I was then able to carry on a fruitful dialogue with him in which I requested his help with real faith that he was going to answer my prayers. He did so in a myriad of ways, by leading me to several methods of compensating for my hearing deficiency and also guiding a couple of the problem students to redouble their efforts to speak in such a way that I could understand them. By the end of the semester I had established true back-and-forth communication with all my students, as evidenced by substantially higher end-of-semester evaluations than I had received previously.
You, too, can apply this technique of forgiving others in order to get your petitions granted; it may take more effort than Act as If or willed belief, but it will produce greater results. Remember, it’s the God of love we’re dealing with here!
It was during those years as an LSU TA that I became aware of the importance of the technique of relaxation as a petitioning tool. In each of the semesters that I taught, I was always somewhat nervous immediately before class, and so was focused on enlisting God’s help with various aspects of what was about to take place. I would stand at one of the mirrors in the ladies’ room down the hall from the classroom and pretend to be combing my hair so I could talk silently to God without calling attention to myself as I asked him to help with my communication challenges and also to make the upcoming session as productive as possible. Pondering my humble position in the universe, I would make a conscious effort to put my trust in its Creator. Sometimes when I did this I could actually sense God’s presence there behind me, as though the sturdy metal fixtures and the thick concrete walls were a direct manifestation of his strength and reliability. I found I could tap into this strength by relaxing physically, breathing deeply and then letting my shoulders fall downward as I exhaled, as if to relieve their burden of trying to be in charge of everything when actually God had so much more control over the whole situation than I did. Sometimes merely thinking about God’s power would elicit the physical reaction automatically.
When I finished my prayers, I would make what I called my leap of faith, a sort of close-your-eyes-and-dive-in action of the mind, in which I could pretend I had everything under control when really I felt partly numb and partly terrified. The best I can describe this action is to say that I would put up a wall in my brain between myself and my fright, which would last long enough to carry me through the few minutes in which I actually had to put one foot in front of the other and get to the classroom. I was able to do this because of the strength I had gained from my prayers. Once I got to the room, the sheer force of reality would immediately wash away all my mental constructs, both prayerful and fearful, replacing them with the hyperactivity of students and lecture notes, roll books and handouts. But at that point, all I had to do was go with the flow, bolstered by the confidence that my assorted mental exercises had given me. You can have the same type of success if you put your mind to it.
After faith, forgiveness, and relaxation (that is, the submission of my will into the will of the universe), the next big lesson I learned about petitioning God is a bit more complicated to explain. But basically, what happened was that in the painful aftermath of a romantic breakup when I was forty, I searched for answers in a way that I hadn’t since my teens, and found them in the pages of M. Scott Peck’s classic The Road Less Traveled. (The opening sentence finally made sense: “Life is difficult.”) With Peck’s guidance and much contemplative prayer, I gradually came to understand that the purpose of life is spiritual growth, and one impetus for such growth is pain, and that’s why God lets bad things happen to us. (The idea is for us to progressively become more godlike ourselves.)
With this exciting new wisdom, I was now able to accept (and, in a sense, welcome) the end of the romantic relationship because I understood that it held the key to my own greatest happiness. This was because I was now making the fundamental decision to learn and grow from the pain instead of sitting around complaining about it; since such growth is the key to the deepest possible happiness and joy, then it followed that the pain itself was going to ultimately lead to my experiencing such joy. I continued to pray for my former beloved, but now, instead of asking God simplistically to restore the love affair, I asked him to help both her and me to grow, and on that basis I was able to begin healing and moving forward with my life.
And now for the petitioning lesson: Sometime during my prayerful contemplations, I suddenly realized that since God lets bad things happen to us in order to stimulate us to make the choice for growth, it follows that if we’re going to ask him to remove the bad things, we must first undertake whatever bit of growth they were designed to elicit. If we do that, and then ask him with faith to change the circumstances, he will be glad to. But if we ask him merely to change the circumstances without seeking to transform ourselves accordingly, then he’s most likely not going to deliver, since that would defeat the purpose of having the unwanted stuff there in the first place.
With regard to Belinda (my lost love), it was several years before I accomplished the crucial transformation that God wanted me to make, which was to give up the romantic fantasies I still entertained about her. (Although I had accepted the breakup, I hoped that we could eventually make a go of it again, and was obsessed with trying to make that happen.) Letting go of something so dear to my heart, and so seemingly essential to my happiness, was a huge challenge, but because I cared about the relationship in whatever form it was meant to take, I persevered. Gradually, I gave up my fantasies and learned to appreciate Belinda as a person in her own right, separate from me. All this time, I continued to pray for the furtherance of our friendship, and to learn many small lessons about it (and about life) along the way. The result was that the relationship evolved into a deeply satisfying soul-mate-level “passionate friendship,” and Belinda got accepted to medical school, another quite challenging project I had petitioned God about many times. Moreover—as has been the case with all instances of my self-improvement for the purpose of getting prayers answered—the psychic maturity I gained in the process has proven even more satisfying than getting what I was praying for.
Other transformations of mine that led directly to many different types of granted petitions include letting go of anger, many times and in many forms; losing my aversion to old people in general, as well as learning to forgive an elderly uncle for his narrow-minded views; overcoming my disdain for a disabled tutee’s apparently “shiftless” friends and neighbors who failed to help him with his computer as much as I thought they should; giving up my desire to control the same fellow’s educational plans because I thought I was the only one who could advise him correctly; reliving the pain of gaffes I had made in conversation, in order to ask God to help me improve; making a concerted effort to branch out to others after Belinda chided me for “keeping score” regarding my place in her social life; and reducing my obsessiveness about my eating and exercise practices, which I found I had to do if I wanted God to continue to preserve my excellent health.
The various principles of petitionary prayer also work when the problems to be tackled are more dire, as I learned after I was diagnosed with breast cancer toward the end of Belinda’s first year of med school. By the time this happened, I had completely internalized the basic petitioning outlook, which views all events as happening to us for the purpose of stimulating spiritual growth. That outlook, along with the relationship to God that I had developed in order to get my everyday petitions granted, enabled me to maintain an uncommonly good attitude throughout this genuine threat. Talk about transformation—I was able to mature so much as a patient that I was less afraid of lying on the gurney and getting four injections of radioactive material into the tumor than I had been about a decade earlier when I had first mustered up the courage to donate blood. As a result, I was blessed with small victories all along the way, as well as an excellent outcome of it all. Truly, petitioning God can help heal cancer as well mend broken relationships.
The four keys to getting prayers answered, then, are faith, forgiveness, relaxation/submission, and transformation. With each of these actions, we make the existential choice that all humans have to make every day, between the good and creative versus the evil and destructive. Every time we choose the good, we clear our minds to connect with the creative power of the universe, so that the possibilities are endless for what we can accomplish. While it takes some practice to master these techniques, I hope my experiences will help you reach that point sooner than you would have otherwise.